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Human rights: Universalism versus Cultural Relativism - by Gianluca Cimini

As far as human rights are concerned, the debate between universalism and cultural relativism has always been intense. It has also drawn a clear distinction between western and non-western philosophies and, accordingly, between the so-called western and non-western countries.

The universalist theory of human rights is based on western philosophy and the emphasis it gives to the individual as a social unity. The universalist approach to human rights is a product of Greek philosophy, Christianity and the Enlightenment intellectuals. It states that individuals can use nature, God or their own reason to identify basic inalienable rights possessed by every human pre-existing society. By contrast, the relativist theory of human rights considers a community as the basic social unity, not the individual. Individualism, freedom of choice and equality are not present in the relativist theory because the interest of the community always comes first. The relativist approach refuses, by definition, the application of objective standards to different cultures.

In order to deeply understand how these two different approaches affect human rights protection in society, we can refer to the two largest countries among western and eastern States, namely the United States of America (USA) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although both the USA and the PRC accepted the universality of human rights as embodied in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they differ in the way they perceive and concretely protect human rights.

The USA has embraced the universalist theory of human rights. Hence, the existence of universal and inalienable human rights norms is recognized. Each person is individually entitled to equal human rights protection regardless of any cultural, social, political and economic condition of its own country. On the other hand, the PRC has adopted the relativist theory of human rights. Human rights are perceived as a product of economic development. Consequently, they are strictly connected with the specific economic, political, social and cultural conditions of a country. Different phases of the development of a country entail different needs as far as human rights are concerned. Thereby, a universal model of human rights typical of certain countries is not appropriate for other different countries. For developing countries, the production of human rights implies first of all the protection of the right to subsistence and the rights to development.    

The political system of the USA, such as that of the majority of western countries, is based on liberalism, which is based on the unalienable rights of the individual. With particular reference to human rights, liberalism is transformed into individualism. It implies respect of the single individual, namely respect for his/her individual human rights. Consequently, liberalism in the USA stresses, for instance, the importance of freedom of speech and religion. For this reason, the USA, unlike the PRC, is much more prone to emphasise political rights, especially the rights to political dissent. On the other hand,  The PRC, along with other eastern countries, stresses economic rights and the right to development. The country gives priority to the rights to subsistence and development due to high rates of poverty and the intention to put economic and social stability at the top of the Chinese political agenda. 

Gianluca Cimini

Gianluca CImini - Human rights: Universalism versus Cultural Relativism